“Mine eyes dazzle…”

Nobody's a fan of Red Weddings (obviously) but Zahra Hidayatullah thinks that PFDC L'Oreal Paris Bridal Week will be the dragon's pajamas

“Mine eyes dazzle…”
It’s that time of the year again. The fashion scene is buzzing. The vibe is electrifying. Designers are getting frantic. Production units and embellishment artisans are burning the midnight oil. Makeup teams have started training and models are busy preparing themselves. The pitch is feverish.

Icarus, take flight (Sonia Azhar, 2013)
Icarus, take flight (Sonia Azhar, 2013)

Winter – or Bridal Season in this case – is coming. Weddings are waiting to be had and brides are busy fussing over the ultimate dress for their Big Day. Running from pillar to post, they are seeking either of two things: one, a signature look, or two, the trending option that almost every recent bride has carried off.

Keeping in mind the growing trend of brand awareness and stylized weddings, each woman wants the best of the very best for her special occasion. Depending on their budget and their personal sense of style, different brides like different things. Gone are the days when trips to local bazaars were the answer to this complex issue. The Bride of Today wants everything done perfectly fashionably and not every mum is equipped with the style sense to pull this off. Things have changed considerably since the early 1990s.
Winter - or Bridal Season, in this case - is coming

When, in 1995, with French collaboration, the Pakistan Institute of Fashion and Design opened its doors to the city of Lahore, the process of a nationwide design revolution was set in motion. Chief patron and director Sehyr Saigol led this project. With a vision that looked outwards – beyond The Wall, if you will – and extended beyond national boundaries, here was someone who saw the potential in local embroidery artisans and decided to conserve this endangered heritage by streamlining the business of fashion. To develop institutions marking these efforts, the Pakistan Fashion Design Council (PFDC) was formed. Gradually, fashion became more than just a bored housewife’s garage-based side job.

As professional design houses took root and gained momentum, the concept of “fashion weeks” was introduced. Like anywhere else in the world today, it is now the industry norm. The last four years have seen the pioneering trend of separate fashion weeks for bridal couture, which is a completely independent market.

Named for the international beauty giant that sponsors the event, the carefully timed PFDC L’Oreal Paris Bridal Week is to be held from 16 to 18 September, showcasing individual collections from 22 fashion design houses – presenting both young and veteran designers. An enviable lineup, it includes top names such as Elan, Karma, Sana Safinaz, Kamiar Rokni, Shamaeel Ansari and HSY. The show also promises to introduce four new entrants as well as two recent design houses that have been mentored and nurtured by the PFDC itself.

Be a showstopper (Ali Xeeshan, 2011)
Be a showstopper (Ali Xeeshan, 2011)

Weddings are just round the corner and this is the best time and the most suitable platform for the finest collections to make a statement if they are to be noticed or sold. Yet there are those participating purely in pursuit of perfection. “Every single fashion week I participate in is a growth opportunity for me. Regardless of exposure, I do it for myself. Each successive collection is a reflection of my journey. It is a platform that is provided to a select few and it depends on each one of us what we make of it. The challenge lies in creating a moment in fashion that is eternal,” says couturier extraordinaire, Hassan Sheharyar Yasin, of the design house, HSY.

On the offchance you're marrying Vronsky (Fahad Hussayn, 2011)
On the offchance you're marrying Vronsky (Fahad Hussayn, 2011)

Elaborating on the role of the PFDC in this design evolution, chairperson, Sehyr Saigol explains, “When performance-based platforms like the PFDC come in, the more established names are also drawn out of their comfort zone as they feel the need to reinvent themselves while remaining true to their original design ethos.”

While showcasing big names is part of the game, the institution has not lost sight of its primary objective of promoting the business of fashion and setting up an industry around it, and to this end is known for lending support in the form of a most beneficial launch-pad to new entrants and the latest members entering the fold of the fashion fraternity.

… or one of the blokes from Game of Thrones (HSY, 2011)
… or one of the blokes from Game of Thrones (HSY, 2011)

It has provided a passageway that invariably leads many new entrants down the Catwalk of Fame and has the power to catapult them into household names in no time. “Showcasing our creations at PFDC’s Fashion Weeks has helped our business tremendously,” says Mahgul, of the eponymous brand. “With only two years into the business and one showing at last year’s Bridal Week, we have shipped bridal orders to places and countries as far away as the UK and Uganda,” beams the proud young designer.

There is no other way to explain this rapid success but to accept the fact that the coverage these events receive is astounding and the response immediate. In addition to facilitating traditional journalists and the electronic media, fashion weeks are now being covered in equal part by digital marketers. With Facebook, Instagram, blogs and Twitter all a click away, people the world over have ready access to PFDC’s fashion events. For the last few years now, the events have also been live-streamed across the Internet.

Mahgul explains, “It has brought awareness of our brands and what we do. People come up to us and tell us they saw pictures of our collection from Bridal Week. This platform has a wide reach. And now it has become a matter of prestige if one is showcasing a collection at Bridal Week.” Stressing on the importance of showcasing creations at PFDC, fashion designer Misha Lakhani adds, “Presenting collections at fashion weeks forces you to innovate and move forward, which is good for business.”
"The challenge lies in creating a moment in fashion that is eternal"

Not only do newcomers seem to be benefitting, but veteran designer Khadijah Shah of Elan feels the same way when she says, “It is a platform that provides a lot of visibility in terms of press and media focus. It puts our work in the spotlight. Social media presence also helps since it provides an interactive medium, which is another great way of connecting with clientele. We get to show what we are making… I like showcasing at PFDC fashion weeks because I like the energy, the vibe, the interaction with other designers.”

With each successive year, the process seems to be evolving and improving under PFDC’s constant vigilance. However, Sehyr Saigol gives full credit to the designers when she says, “Hats off to all the designers who, in two years, have picked up and developed the discipline required to present two collections a year. And I say this because I know that talented designers are artists for whom it is very difficult to channel creativity under timeline guidance, but in the fashion business it is very important to have a business sense and a sense of timing.”

Attitude, dahling (Kamiar Rokni, 2013)
Attitude, dahling (Kamiar Rokni, 2013)

The concept of bridal wear in the Subcontinent has always been very traditional. For centuries, red was associated with the bride. Silhouettes rarely change shape with the times. While Northern India may embrace the peshwas, South India remains loyal to the sari as the only choice for a bridal outfit. West of the border, here in Pakistan, we may be more open to different options but only within the three or four forms mentioned above. The lehnga choli reigns supreme, followed closely by the two-legged gharara.

Matrimony is not just a blessing, but also big business in Pakistan. It’s the perfect ideal to indulge in beauty and celebrate love and happiness and what better way to embrace the sentiment than to wear it on one’s sleeve, so to speak. As Sehyr Saigol explains, “It is not easy in bridal to be too radical since, after all, it is catering to a very limited clientele that has been conditioned over centuries to wear a whole lot of work.”

Collarge 9 to 12 b

Therefore, the real challenge for designers has been to create unique looks while remaining mindful of the boundaries of design in this art form. Only a few years old in the field of fashion, Karachi-based fashion designer Sania Maskatiya does not shy away from the truth when she says, “We try not to shift too far from traditional cuts for bridal because runway statements often translate into sales especially as far as this show is concerned … As the main objective of these shows is to promote the business of fashion, orders depend on the collection showcased on the ramp, so the styles presented are retail-friendly.”

Khadijah Shah reiterates the sentiment, “One has to learn how to strike a balance between creativity and consumer demands and one has to keep in mind that bridal wear specifically caters to brides. This is why Bridal Week is always held right before the bridal season.”
The aim: create five stories or moods and build three to four outfits around each mood

However, there is no fixed formula for success in this creative arena. As a trained artist, sculptor and painter, Mahgul begs to differ: “Our clothes are not client-driven or trend-based, they are design-focused. This approach has helped our business and we can boast of a clientele that is willing to experiment. Although it is true that bridals presented on the ramp often translate into sales, but as an artist and as a designer, sales is not the primary objective of showcasing my collections at Bridal Week; rather it’s the exposure of my work; presenting what I’m creating.”

“I have had brides who have wanted my experimental pieces as bridals as well – the high-collared armored pieces,” she says, adding, “for instance, the five pieces I designed for the last fashion week were all well received. Each one of the designs received orders – without any request for any alterations in design/embroidery. That was a big compliment. People who come to me are the ones who are more open to new ideas. It gives me great satisfaction to come across someone who is willing to wear a signature look.”

With this fresh artistic approach, Mahgul seems to be the exception to the rule. Otherwise, the room to experiment in cuts and silhouettes is limited and, hence, the focus is mainly on embroidery, thread-work motifs and embellishment techniques. Designers now carry out extensive research and derive inspiration from an eclectic mix of sources – be it literature, history, travel, nature or artwork.

Mahgul says, “I’ve been looking at a lot of baroque still lives and oil paintings. Therefore, the colors are not the usually peaches, lilacs and silver tones. The colors are dark and somber and the silhouette is also unique. They have not been created from a sales point-of-view but more from an artistic point of view. The patterns are based on elevation drawings and aerial views that can be used on jackets.”

Saira Faisal Qizilbash of the design house Saira Shakira says, “The theme for our first bridal collection was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Opulence seems to play a grand part in designing bridals. Ammara Khan of the eponymous brand label says, “Last year, I was inspired by Russian royalty… the fabric, the motif development was all derived from Russian heiresses and tsarinas and what they were wearing in the early 1900s.”

HSY (2014)
HSY (2014)

Similarity must often strike when the elements with which to experiment are so far and few between. One wonders then on what basis PFDC selects the designers who are to showcase collections at their events. Sehyr Saigol explains, “Their work, their creativity and their individual style is what we look at. It doesn’t matter to us if they not experienced; we go all out to help them create collections. To me bringing fresh ideas into the field is very exciting.”

She goes on to explain, “For example, some of the fresh PIFD graduates show such brilliance and promise that we feel the earlier the better to showcase their artistry and creative skill. However, it has not been an easy task to do so since we often have to re-program them and inculcate a commercial aspect to their design aesthetics since they come from a very French couture educational background. But we are happy about the fact that, during this process, we have had the good fortune of introducing people like Mohsin Ali, Ali Xeeshan, Akif Mahmood and Saira Shakira amongst others to the world of fashion.”

CEO PFDC Saad Ali takes pride in the fact that, “over the years, PFDC Bridal Week has enabled new expressions. We recently witnessed the concept of ‘bridal separates’, which did not exist prior to our Bridal Fashion Week. Not everyone wants the same heavily embellished lehnga dupatta; Maheen Kardar Ali at Karma introduced the jumpsuit gharara. So we see the element of deconstructionism taking root.”

The PLPBW coterie
The PLBW coterie

This rare, radical shift in design has been welcomed wholeheartedly by the PFDC. So much embroidery, such heavy embellishments and all that opulence can be a bit overwhelming for the audiences. As Sehyr Saigol continues to explain, “After numerous discussions with the designers, I have advised them not to make 15 bridals but instead create five stories or moods and build three to four outfits around each mood. It is too much for the eyes to hold altogether.”

The lady continues to champion the cause of fashion and style in Pakistan through various institutions and platforms that promote professional ethics in this field. Meanwhile, the platform is set to define and present contemporary and traditional Pakistani bridal fashion. As signature names stand in line to declare their seasonal inspiration; choice of colors, hues and tones; embellishment motifs and their latest bridal vision (which will go on to create the look for the upcoming bridal season), we, the audience, sit in anticipation of 16 September.